The management of e-mail in UK Government – the comments of a civil servant

Getting off the train tonight I bumped into a civil servant acquaintance of mine. He has been working at a reasonably senior level for the past two decades and has been working on a reasonably important policy initiative for the past three years

He asked me what I was doing these days.

I told him I was still doing my records management consulting but I had also started a part time PhD

He asked me what I was doing my PhD research into.

I told him I was researching how the UK government was managing e-mail.

He started to laugh, Not a giggle, a proper belly laugh.

I asked why he was laughing

He told me that he didn’t think there were any proper government records since the break up of the paper record systems in the late 1990s. His Department used to use a massive electronic records management system, but ‘no-one could find anything in it and hardly anyone used it’.

The Department had ceased using that electronic records management system a year ago. They had intended to implement a new records systems based on SharePoint but it had been delayed so they have been making do with e-mail accounts and shared drives.

He said that the last time he had saved something into a central records system of any kind was five years ago.

All his correspondence was in e-mail. He has 11,000 e-mails in his account. His department used to routinely delete e-mails that were over 2 and a half years old but that practice was in abeyance since they abandoned their electronic records system.

I asked what he thought he would be able to hand over to his successor in the event that he left the department or transferred post. He answered ‘almost nothing’. He said that the final outputs of his work were available on his Department’s website, but the thought process of how he got there will be lost.

Then he corrected himself and said ‘actually it won’t be lost, it will exist on a server somewhere, it will just be completely unfindable’

Most UK government departments seem to delete the contents of an e-mail account some months or years after a civil servant leaves so I suspect it won’t sit on a server for terribly long if/when my acquaintance does leave the department.

The part time PhD I am embarking on is jointly supervised by the University of Loughborough and The National Archives.